Minor league life in New York offers unique experience
BROOKLYN, N.Y.—For people who have never lived in New York City, it's hard to tell them what it's like. Therefore, sometimes you have to use someone else's description.
"If you can play here, you can play anywhere," says Brooklyn Cyclones catcher Jason Jacobs, a native of West Palm Beach, Fla.
NEW YORK (PENN) STATE OF MIND
• With an already thin farm system, no picks in the first two rounds of the draft and the inability to sign their third- and fourth-round draft picks, the Astros are looking at Tri-City outfielder Collin DeLome as one of their better prospects. DeLome, 21, was hitting .306/.373/.500 through 202 plate appearances, after batting .329 with 10 homers for Lamar in the spring. The fifth-round pick, who was the Southland Conference player of the year in 2006, is a good athlete and has played mostly center field for Tri-City, where he has shown good range.
NORTH BY NORTHWEST
• Tri-City third baseman Darin Holcomb didn't overwhelm scouts at Gonzaga, but the Rockies' 12th-rounder was hitting .291/.381/.512 though 250 plate appearances. The knock on Holcomb in college was his lack of standout tools, both offensively and defensively, but he has excellent strike zone judgment (25 walks vs. 23 strikeouts) and has shown good power with 10 home runs and 17 doubles.
• The Cubs hope third baseman Josh Vitters, the third overall pick in this year's draft, turns into a star down the line. In the meantime, the Cubs' next two picks—supplemental first-rounder Josh Donaldson and third-rounder Tony Thomas—have been impressive at Boise. Donaldson, a catcher from Auburn, was hitting .295/.416/.545 through 137 plate appearances. Thomas, a second baseman from Florida State, was hitting .306/.384/.570 through 138 plate appearances, and had 19 steals in 20 attempts.
• Elizabethton has two of the top pitching prospects in the league with righthanders Mike McCardell and David Bromberg. At 22, McCardell is old for the Appalachian League. But the 6-foot-5 McCardell, whom the Twins drafted in the sixth round, had 62 strikeouts and four walks in 39 innings, and a 2.31 ERA. Bromberg, also 6-foot-5 but at 19 years old his age is more appropriate for his level, also was dominating, though his statistics aren't as earth-shattering as McCardell's. Bromberg, a 32nd-rounder in 2005, had 70 strikeouts and 31 walks in 511⁄3 innings, good for a 2.45 ERA.
• Johnson City righthander Andres Rosales appears to be one of the more impressive pitching prospects in the league. Rosales, 19, had 34 strikeouts, five walks and a 2.08 ERA through 26 innings. Rosales has an extremely thin frame as a 6-foot, 140 pound pitcher. The apparent improvement in command is encouraging for Rosales, who had 63 strikeouts in 44 innings in the Dominican Summer League last year, but also walked 34.
• Billings shortstop Todd Frazier, the Reds' supplemental first round draft pick, was hitting .336/.418/.533 through 156 plate appearances. Frazier was a three year starter at Rutgers, where he showed good control of the strike zone with 136 walks to 126 strikeouts in his career. He finished his junior season hitting .377/.502/.757, and showed plus power with a wood bat during the summer, and so far those skills have carried over into his professional debut. With seven errors in 29 games though, scouts may be right that Frazier might need to change positions.
• Righthander Wilmer Font is only 17 years old, but he's quickly establishing himself as one of the most intriguing young pitching prospects in baseball. The 6-foot-4 Font, who signed with the Rangers last year from Venezuela, has had his fastball clocked as high as 97 mph this year, a key reason for his 45 strikeouts in 351⁄3 innings in the Arizona League.
"He pitches at 94 or 95 and the breaking ball is still developing," Rangers farm director Scott Servais said. "He's got big stuff with great leverage and angle to his fastball. We've been very cautious with him, but he's going to be one of our top arms heading into instructional league."
• The Twins also hope to have an international find in the GCL in righthander Lian Hendriks, 18, who signed earlier this year for a low-six-figures signing bonus. The former Australian Rules Football player has a projectable frame with a fringe-average fastball, average curve and average changeup at this time. Hendriks had a 0.43 ERA in 21 August innings with 33 strikeouts and just five walks.
It might be a trite to reference Ol' Blue Eyes' legendary ode to New York when talking about the toughness it takes to make it in the Big Apple, but that doesn't mean his words don't ring true. Though the Cyclones have made running a successful minor league franchise look easy since their New York-Penn League debut in 2001, that does not mean that it always applies for the players.
If measured separately from New York City, the borough of Brooklyn would be the fifth-largest city in America with 2.2 million citizens. When compared to the likes of Kinston, N.C., and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, it is not the typical minor league town.
And so, for the majority of players who are from places like Kinston and towns of that size in Latin America, playing in Jay-Z's home borough can be a bit of a culture shock.
"There are as many people in my town as there are in those bleachers over there," quips lefthander Grady Hinchman, a native of Pendleton, Ind. (Pop. 3,919), from the home dugout at KeySpan Park.
Hinchman isn't the only self-described country boy on the team that has had to adjust to an urban culture.
"I grew up in a town where we make jokes that the tires on your truck cost more than the truck," says righthander Will Morgan of Eureka, Calif. (Pop. 25,435), which is near the Oregon border. "It's a bunch of lifted Fords and Chevys in my hometown, and here it's a bunch of Escalades and Navigators."
But despite the fact a minor leaguer can easily burn his monthly salary during a night out in Manhattan, you'd be hard-pressed to find a Cyclone who doesn't relish the chance to play in one of the minor leagues' few big leagues cities.Fan Friendly
While each Cyclone cites a variety of reasons why he enjoys playing on Coney Island so much, the most common refrain is that it's hard to find such passionate fans anywhere else in the minors.
"Even if we were the home team anywhere else, it's just not the same," Morgan says. "Here, they let you know when you're doing good, they let you know when you're doing bad. They get on you, and then they love you. They're just great fans."
The Cyclones, averaging 8,024 fans per game this year through 28 openings, have led the New York-Penn League in attendance every year of their existence under the leadership of general manager Steve Cohen. Cohen was a key figure in the Cyclones' move to Brooklyn from Queens, back when the team was known as the Queens Kings.
Beyond their masses, they Cyclones fans are also a knowledgeable group.
"The first time I pitched here," Hinchman says, "was when I was promoted from the Gulf Coast League, which was about five fans that were usually the family of someone, to 8,000 people (here). It was incredibly exciting. My first outing was a little rough; the home fans were yelling, 'go back to Gulf Coast!'
"It wasn't the best, but after that I learned how the fans in Brooklyn are. They just want good baseball."
And good baseball is what they have gotten in 2007 as the Cyclones led the NY-P with 37 wins, further proof that the players aren't adversely affected by their new lifestyle. In fact, for players like Raul Reyes, New York provides a cultural element he never found last year while playing for Kingsport in the Rookie-level Appalachian League.
"Here in Brooklyn, there are a lot of Latin restaurants," the Santa Domingo native says. "In Kingsport last year, it was harder to get Latin food."
With a sister and cousin who also live in New York, Reyes has other comforts of home beyond the cuisine.
"Last year in Kingsport, all I had was the other players, every move was with them," the 20-year-old outfielder says. "Here, I have family and friends. It's nicer."
Reyes isn't the only Cyclone with an element of home nearby. Second baseman Micah Schilling has a few friends from his hometown of Clinton, La. living in Manhattan, and he has been crashing with them for the summer.
One of those friends is Andrew Wicker, an offensive guard out of Mississippi, who is trying to make the Jets as a nondrafted free agent.
Besides some familiar faces from home, Schilling also relishes another perk of life in the city that is anathema to the rest of the minors.
"A good part about it was that there was always something open; you can always get something to eat," the 24-year-old says.
"You usually you have that problem a lot in minor league baseball where the game is over and everything is shut down. You always have a (post-game food) spread, but it's good to be able to mix it up a little bit."
Because he was living in midtown Manhattan, Schilling had to take the hour-long subway ride on his own out to Coney Island.
"At first I was little scared and hesitant," Schilling says. "You hear horror stories about the subway, and I was going to be riding it everyday by myself, and a lot of times late at night.
"But it wasn't a problem at all. I really enjoyed it because it was a little quiet time by myself where I could relax and not have to worry about much."
Though it's not required, the majority of the Cyclones live at the dorms of Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute. For the reasonable price (particularly by New York standards) of $100 per person per week, the players share three-room suites with up to three other players.
The only downside is that the dorms are 13 miles from the park in the neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights. The Cyclones provide a van for the players, though they have the option of taking the subway.Married Life
While the dorms are perfect for the bachelors who comprise the majority of the Cyclones' roster, it gets a little more complicated for Jacobs and Hinchman.
Because Hinchman is married and Jacobs is engaged to be so, both had to brave the cutthroat world of renting an apartment in New York City--a process made all the more difficult when you need it for just three months, and you are on a minor league salary. Fortunately for Jacobs, the Cyclones' fan base looks out for its players.
"A season-ticket holder here told my fiancée about (our place) at one of the games," the Georgia alum says. "'Oh yeah, I know a lady two doors down from me who's looking to rent out her apartment for three months.' And we're like, 'that sounds perfect.' We ended up going there and hit it off. It was perfect for us."
Similarly, the Hinchmans received help from Cyclones fans in getting settled. After finding a rental on the popular classifieds website craigslist.com from a man visiting family in Spain for the summer, Hinchman's wife went looking for a job to help pay the bills. She quickly found work at an Irish bar/restaurant called Bally Bunion, which is located in their neighborhood of Bay Ridge in the shadow of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.
"They took her right under their wing when they found out I was playing for the Cyclones," the Western Kentucky alum says with a chuckle.
It's experiences like the one at Bally Bunion that made Hinchman realize that Brooklyn might not be that atypical of a minor league town after all.
"I thought it would be a place where nobody knows your name," he says. "But our little neighborhood, where we live, the guy at the deli knows who we are, the guy where we rent movies from knows who we are. It's just like a small town, but in our confined area. It's really cool, and makes you feel a little more comfortable when you are overwhelmed about being in a big city."Former BA staffer Matt Meyers is a freelance writer based in New York.